Don’t Choke: What We Can Learn from Tim Tebow
“Oooohhh, there it is!” Came the Dominican-accented scream from the outfield.
“Get it, Eric!” Yelled my dad.
I ripped my mask off and shot my eyes to the night sky. The ball was easily a hundred feet in the air but the stadium lights caught it perfectly. I took three steps out of the batting circle, turned my back to the infield and raised my glove. When I realized the ball was fading away from me it was already too late. The ball shot down to the ground in front of me and I caught it on the first bounce, which, in case you don’t follow baseball, doesn’t count for shit.
“Oh!” My father cried, as if to say “just missed it!” I had “just missed” two other pop flies already at that night’s practice and, as much as my teammates were ready to help me laugh it off, here and there I still think about that summer night more than five years ago, and grimace.
Every year for the last five I’ve read The Best American Sports Writing (Mariner Books, 2011), which compiles the best couple dozen feature articles from all over the sports world from the previous calendar year. Last night I finished The Tight Collar, a Wired.com article by David Dobbs about choking and clutch performance in sports and beyond. Most of us don’t usually have to hit jumpers at the buzzer or face Major League pitching in the bottom of the ninth, but the pressure performance research that Dobbs reviews in his article goes well beyond sports, impacting tasks we all attempt, like job interviews and exams.
Scholars at Stanford, Arizona, Chicago, and NYU have found that performance at pressure tests can be manipulated by toying with the amount and direction of pressure felt by the test taker. A person who believes they are being tested at something they are meant to excel at will perform better, and likewise, a person who is placed in a test they suspect they are destined to fail will perform worse. For example, tell a white man the test is measuring his overall intelligence and he’ll blow through it, but tell him the test is being used to compare his engineering aptitude against an Asian man’s and he will bomb. White men can’t even jump as high if the phrase “natural jumping ability” is used in the pre-test chat. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.
The operational mechanism here is the “identity threat” (white engineers are inferior to Asian engineers; white men can’t jump, etc.), which makes the tester anxious that he will embody an identity he fears. From here, experts believe the choke works in two ways: 1. We fear an outcome consistent with an identity we fear embodying and we over think; we interfere with our own fluidity and success by becoming conscious of operations that are usually second nature, like catching a ball or answering the question, “if you were an animal what would it be and why?” (Answer: Lion, no explanation necessary). 2. The threat of fulfilling this negative identity preoccupies and discourages us and we subconsciously surrender to the identity we abhor (give up).
The identity threats that are used in the studies mentioned above are broad stereotypes, but we all carry identity threats unique to ourselves that can trigger poor performance if they are not dealt with. Ph.Ds from Ivy League schools and peer-reviewed research is one thing, but let me say this: I strongly believe these ideas are valid. Let me explain why:
Two years before I humiliated myself in front of father, God, and country, I was attending a baseball camp just outside of Dallas, Texas. As it turned out, the coaches were using the camp to recruit for a team that was going to the Junior Olympics. The first few days went well and I turned one coaches head a few times because I was bigger than most fifteen-year-olds and had shown some good hands in a first basemen’s drill. Day four started well when I was able to do more kip-ups (from catcher position drop to knees, return to crouch, repeat) than anyone else. Then we started on pop flies and disaster struck. I was turned the wrong way; I lost it in the sun; I tripped on the lip of the batter’s circle; the scenes of me chasing pop ups that morning could fill jumbotron reels for decades. Thirty minutes in, the coach called the camp (3 – 4 dozen kids between thirteen and eighteen) to the shallows of the infield. We would eat lunch when I caught a pop fly. It was the longest seven minutes of my life before the young assistant coach launched a fungo pathetic enough for me to corral.
My unique identity threat: I am a shitty catcher who couldn’t catch a pop fly if my life depended on it.
In the years between my melt down in Texas and that day in June when my father wished he had a daughter, I dropped some pop ups and I caught some, but pop ups for a catcher are a funny thing because they are rare and because you never know when they’re gonna come. A ball in the dirt or a called third strike are predictable based on the circumstances of the game, but an opposing hitter could pop one up whenever, so when he did, my brain didn’t always have enough time to consider and self-fulfill the identity I was so afraid of embodying.
But pop fly practice is another thing; you know what’s coming and you’ve got ample time to fear it. So, when that first ball dropped on that summer night and Coach Herby said, “try putting it in your glove this time, white boy,” and wheeled the bat back, it was all over for me.
But it works both ways. Here’s a more positive example:
Think about Tim Tebow. I doubt he thinks of himself as the most skilled athlete, but it’s obvious that Tebow believes in his own ability to win, and it seems like that belief has infected the rest of the Broncos. Over the last several weeks, they have formed a team identity around the notion that they are the guys who are going to come from behind and win football games, so whenever the opportunity to re-enforce that image arises, their legs and arms and heads are primed, like the black guy who believes that, by birth, he is meant to destroy the vertical jump test. The sorts of miss-haps that remind players on the Mets that they are meant to lose only fuels the Broncos’ fire, because they have this idea in their heads that no matter what, they’re meant to win these crazy sorts of games in these crazy sorts of ways. I know, I’m saying a lot based on a little, but look at these numbers:
1 – 3 under Orton, 7 – 2 under Tebow. Orton was supposed to be the better passer and many people thought the Bronco’s option-heavy offense was the only reason for the team’s success (and thought it wouldn’t last), but last night’s scoring drives weren’t option-heavy. There must be another reason for the Broncos’ success. And it’s not performance-related; it’s late game performance-related. Look: Of the last 7 victories, 3 were won in OT. Of those 3, each was tied by the Broncos in the fourth quarter, meaning the team improved as the pressure came on. All of the other 4 victories were won in the fourth quarter; 1 fourth quarter started tied, while the other 3 began with them trailing, meaning the Broncos caught and passed their opponents late in the game.
This shit is uncanny, but what’s significant is not just that the Broncos are good under pressure, but that they are not good not under pressure. Defense holds them in it, but they don’t score, they drop passes, they suck. There is something about late game, high pressure situations that makes them better, and I submit that their team identity is a huge part of that performance boost. If you have another idea, I’d really like to hear it.
As for me, I never got great at pop ups; I got better, but I was always a little afraid I’d drop it. I did get better at school, though, and by the time I was a senior at CU, I noticed that my success fed success. I could under-prepare for an exam and still walk out with a high A, because I was never distracted by anxiety or uncertainty. I didn’t under think or over think, I was just in the zone, fluid and calm, ready to fulfill the identity of excellent student that I had consciously and unconsciously created when I changed schools.
Next time the pressure ratchets up, take a minute, and think of yourself as the person who breaks down negative identities, not the person who enforces them. Think of Tim Tebow.